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Radio Stars July 1938
"EXPOSING THE MARIJUANA DRUG EVIL IN SWING BANDS!"
By Jack Hanley Astounding facts about the habitual use of "reefers" among musicians (page 8)
YOU'VE read about marijuana, of course. Newspapers recently have been, full of stories about reefer-crazed young men and women jumping from windows, killing policemen, robbing, assaulting and running amuck, while under the influence of the weed. And many stories about marijuana say that among those who first spread its use here were musicians; specifically, "hot" or "swing" musicians.
Did that mean, then, that the hot virtuosi of rhythm we listen to on the air are not just highly talented, expert "ride" men? Were the sizzling trumpet licks, the ingenious, and finger-breaking riffs of the clarinet, the wacky off-beat of the drums all the product of drug-inflamed performers? There was one way to find out, so your reporter tried it. Knowing something of music, and musicians, I investigated, questioned and tried to get the low-down on marijuana in its connection with music.
It wasn't very simple; those who know, or who have been using the "hay" themselves, are naturally reticent about it. Stories and articles giving statistics on the spread of the weed, criminal records of the various shocking crimes committed under its influence, guesses and estimates were all very significant. But I wanted to get the, first-hand facts from musicians themselves. And the, following facts came to light.
Most of the really big-time swingsters are definitely not reefer addicts; produce their effects entirely legitimately. Yet, at least one major, hot organization on the air is usually "high" on reefers.
Musicians' use of marijuana is confined almost wholly to swing players.
Those who "hit the weed" seem to use it more temperately or to show less violent reactions than users outside the musical profession.
The most persistent users among the "cats" are the younger players and the second and third raters who think both that it's "smart" to smoke, and that the "hay" improves their technical ability.
Colored swingsters, on the whole, are "walking on air" more often than whites; yet, again, most Negro top notchers avoid the stuff.
I talked first to some "sweet" musicians, whom the "cats" call "long underwear" men. They were vague or completely mystified about marijuana. Those who had heard about it knew very little and shied away from discussion, understandably enough. Mark Warnow, one of radio's top-notch "straight" leaders, said: "I can truthfully say that neither myself nor any of my orchestra ever even heard about reefers until recently. Not very long ago a man appeared on the We, The People program for which we played, and he spoke about marijuana. And we had only the vaguest notion of what he was talking about until he had explained himself.
"My orchestra is a group of serious young men and women who take their music seriously; who love music. They are no more associated with the wild, hectic type of music than they are with opium or black magic. We find our music on the pages of our arrangements, not in sudden improvisations. And the personal---the creative element---in performance is given to shadings of tone, to interpretation and nuances of expression. I know that no musician of this type with whom I have been associated has had anything to do with marijuana."
Emil Coleman, society bandleader and popular exponent of "sweet" music, says essentially the same thing. "The youngest member of my orchestra, in point of service," he says, "has been with me for twelve years. Some have been with me for twenty years, so I believe that I know my men pretty well, particularly since I pick my musicians from the standpoint of character as well as a high degree of musical ability.
"Swing music, it appears to me, seems to need some stimulant, it requires extreme cleverness of its performers; perhaps some get that (Continued on page. 18) stimulant from marijuana. I really don't know. Our stimulus comes from our audience---the people we know and for whom we play. Ours is a pliable orchestra; we work without arrangements, shaping our music to please the dancers, playing what our friends like to hear. I know none of my group uses other stimulants, and I'm so sure that if someone should tell me differently I would not believe it."
These two leaders are fairly indicative, and their sincerity cannot be doubted. Therefore tracking down the "hay" smokers led, inevitably, to the swing group. And there can be no question that it is here reefers are rampant. Yet it was significant to discover that the real Kings of Swing, the boys on top, do not depend upon reefers for their ability. Artie Shaw, bandleader and performer extraordinary on the clarinet, spoke frankly about it.
"It's true," he nodded, "that reefers can be something of a problem in swing bands. But I think the worst angle to it is that the 'jitter-bugs'---the young swing fans of high-school age, so often 'hit the tea.' To give you an example, I was playing a dance date up in a certain town when a youngster, obviously in his early 'teens, came up to the platform. He said: 'Hey, Artie-how about "breakin' a stick" with me in intermission?' He took it for granted that because I was leading a swing band I smoked reefers." Breaking a, stick, of course, was an invitation to have a smoke.
"I think," Artie went on, "that the hysterical articles about marijuana do more harm than good. A mature, well-balanced individual is not apt to play around with reefers; it's the youngsters in search of a sensation, or the emotionally unstable type, the 'screwballs,' who are the most likely prospects. And those are the very ones who will not be scared away by horrible stories of marijuana's weird effects. They get a kick out of trying something dangerous, unpredictable. The more they read about wild orgies held while 'walking on air' the, smarter they think it is to play around with reefers.
"I found once, dealing with a youngster who was a good musician, but hitting the weed, that the best cure was kidding him out of it. Once boys and girls get the idea that kids use reefers, that it's high-school stuff and a prop for second-raters in music, they'll leave it alone'. I know that in this case I speak of it worked and the lad quit when no amount of terrorizing would have influenced him."
I quote Artie Shaw at length because I found what he said to be, sound. More than one bandleader admitted that he had encountered the marijuana, menace in his outfit. One leader told me of a young man in his band who was a crackerjack musician, but who used the weed so consistently that he was quite undependable. The fits of deep depression reefers so often, produce would seize him until he had to be restrained, from suicide; in addition, procuring a supply of the weed in strange towns was a problem, also, and he became increasingly miserable when deprived of it. And this, I think, is significant: Not once did I find any testimony that would bolster, the belief that getting "high" on reefers really improved musical ability. True, like alcohol, the "tea" will release inhibitions and sometimes allow a latent ability to show. But more often than not, the musician who is "walking on air" can do as well if not better in his normal, un-stimulated condition. One instrumentalist who admittedly smokes "hay' put it this way: "I never use the stuff when I'm working," he assured me. "Sure-I hit the tea occasionally, for relaxation, for a kick. But I made a definite test once and I found that, so far as I was concerned, reefers made me want to play, made the notes sound wonderful. But the actual results were far inferior to my usual performance. That is---while it releases musical inhibitions it also impairs the critical faculties, so that what I played wasn't really half, as good as it sounded to me."
That is an individual reaction, of course, and no two persons react in quite the same way to the Mexican weed. But what this musician said seems pretty well borne out by others. True, quite a few swingmen smoke the hay occasionally. Some of them are the better type musicians. And almost invariably, the better the player the less he uses the weed. Carried right to the top of the profession it means that few of the top notchers smoke at all and none of them depend upon "hay" for their, swing ideas. Your reefer addict who has become an, habitual user is almost invariably a youngster, a serond-rater or a "nut" type who would be susceptible to dangerous sensation in any field o endeavor. I know definitely of only one real swing star who habitually got high on the weed, and he was a colored musician whose career was almost ruined by his addiction.
Unquestionably, marijuana's most serious menace is in the peddling of cigarettes to school kids; in the prevalence of "hay" smoking among teenaged youngsters incapable of realizing the dynamite they are playing with. That this is so has been demonstrated by various, government investigations. There are so-called "booth-joints" where kids can get a hot dog, a (Continued on page 54) coca-cola and a reefer for a quarter. And these children make up the main body of the swing fans; they are the jitter-bugs who dance in the aisles when Benny Godman plays the Paramount; from them come many of the newer recruits to the ranks of swing musicians. This presents the conflicting picture of stories, unquestionably authentic, of horrible crimes committed while "reefered up," and the picture I got from many musicians who smoke an occasional reefer without becoming either addicted or dependent upon it . . . or so they say. And, if you'll bear with the writer's opinion, the answer to that probably is that, like alcohol, some can take it moderately and some cannot. Drunkenness has caused innumerable tragedies, many crimes. But everyone who takes a drink is not an intoxicated maniac, though the extreme cases are the ones that make the headlines. The dangerous difference between marijuana and alcohol is that while liquor's effects vary somewhat with individuals, the general effects are pretty much the same; whereas marijuana's reactions are never the same in two persons and often not the same any two times with the same person! For marijuana has as many different manifestations as it has names, the cigarettes, in which form it is mostly used, being known as muggles, (though that term is old hat now-definitely "corny"), mootah, Mary Warner, hay, tea, mezz, brifo, or reefers, all meaning the dried yellow buds of the Mexican hemp weed, canntabis.
And just what does this insidious stuff do? Well, after a few drags you find a pleasant exultation pervading you. Everything becomes simplified to your mind; problems resolve themselves with crystal clarity, slight remarks become hilariously funny or intolerably depressing. You have all the power in the world and nothing is too difficult for you to do. Your mind goes racing on, ahead of your tongue, and you find yourself talking interminably, perhaps, annoyed with yourself as you hear your own voice going on and on, failing, somehow, to make the point you are after and rambling endlessly without volition. Then, possibly, your brain sharpens---you see everything clearly; you are a master mind and you can settle any argument with sparkling and brilliantly pungent remarks. You are strong and agile and freed of any physical demands or limitations except that you become voraciously hungry. You may lean back in your chair and enjoy weird and exotic hallucinations; talk with nonexistent beings, suffer delusions of grandeur. Perhaps you'll be surprised to find yourself leaping madly about, indulging in wild physical activity; dancing all night, fighting or merely cavorting without fatigue. You may sink into a slough of despondency and suddenly realize, incontrovertibly, that the best thing to do is to throw yourself from a window. And if you feel that way you probably will throw yourself from a window. Or, you may as easily decide that your companion should be killed . . . and you'll kill him.
Eventually you'll fall into a profound sleep from which you cannot be awakened, and afterward, no matter what your reactions have been, you'll probably suffer an awful depression and be tortured by finding yourself in some strange circumstances, unable to recall quite what occurred. Or else you will recall some shocking occurrence and hate yourself for having done it.
Not you of course. The foregoing are only a few of the possible reactions. The "tea" might as easily madden you to a homicidal frenzy, like that of the Filipino who runs amuck; it might make you a philosopher, a rapist or a thief. But, unlike any other narcotic, it has no legitimate use; it never did anyone one bit of good, whereas it has caused more tragedies, ruined more lives than any equivalent stimulant. It never helped a good musician, and it never, never made a good instrumentalist out of a poor one.
It's good stuff to stay far away from. Radio Stars July 1938 - Dell Publishing co., Inc. 149 Madison Ave, New York, N.Y..
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